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Eco Lifestyle: Your Votes Don’t Matter and We’re All Going to Die Anyway

November 2, 2020

I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t immediately kinda excited when I watched the Eco Lifestyle trailer. Don’t get me wrong, I really don’t particularly care for the expansion theme (for reasons I’ll go into below), and wondered why we were getting yet another environmentalism pack so soon after Island Living. But I was primarily excited for Eco Lifestyle because it’s new. No more is The Sims 4 going to be limited to rehashing the same 5 expansion concepts that everyone begins asking for the moment a new Sims base game hits the store shelves (some of which should really have become base game features by now).

No, those expansions are out of the way now. We don’t have to think about them anymore. From here on in, The Sims 4 is free to experiment with whatever the hell concepts it wants to, some of which, hopefully, will become beloved additions to the series that people then go on to beg be added to The Sims 5. It’s the circle of life.

So anyway, I get oddly excited whenever EA announces a totally Out There theme for a new expansion. I thought the theme was a tad too close to that of Island Living, but the concept of having your sims vote against their neighbors to enact new civic policies in their home neighborhoods is both cool, and the kind of Sim City/Sims-style combination feature I’ve been dreaming of for a long time.

They also put a lot more effort into making the Off The Grid lot trait playable, so that’s neat.

So how does Eco Lifestyle hold up, you ask?

A somewhat positive ‘meh’.

First up, everything visual about the pack is great. EL has brought with it some of my favorite Build/Buy assets in the whole game. I love the furnishing style. Sure, it’s yet more modern stuff, a theme with The Sims 4 holds a surplus of, but it’s very nice modern stuff. I can especially see myself using the plentitude of sliding glass doors the pack included.

Speaking of Build/Buy, new with the expansion is the ability for objects to be tagged as either increasing, or reducing your household’s eco footprint, as well as another tag that reduces household bills when the object is placed on the lot. I assume all these windows and doors that reduce both bills and the eco footprint are meant to be those fancy double paned ones that conserve heat. Certain types of flooring are also more or less fire resistant now. It’s actually a very clever use of build-mode assets and adds a very slight, yet very nice hint of realism to the game. I’m not sure any previous sim games have urged players to consider fire safety when choosing floor tiles. Unfortunately, it only looks like build assets shipped with Eco Living will shift your eco footprint, which means that you’re very limited in aesthetics if you want to build with this feature in mind.

You can also buy objects such as solar panels, rain catchers and generators, which produce power and water and can be used to lower your bills, or even make money if you can get a surplus going. These objects, of course, also affect the household’s eco footprint. They’re also damned useful in playing an Off the Grid lot.

Are your sims tired of only being self-sufficient when it comes to plantstuff? Are they craving a little protein every now and again? Well, in order to so so while maintaining the T for Teen rating, your sims can now farm both insects and fake meat.

This would be cool if sims didn’t just magic money into food whenever they used the fridge, or, for that matter, had any kind of need for protein. It’s kind of neat, in an immersion way, to exchange your steak for roasted crickets, but it does absolutely nothing for either your sims’ self sufficiency or a non-existent virtual meat industry. It’s probably more expensive overall to keep the bugs alive than it is to just pay a few simoleans at the fridge. But that’s more a complaint with the Sims 4 (and 3) base game. The feature is fun but doesn’t really affect or improve how your sims live their lives.

Doing absolutely nothing in the long-run may be kind of a theme here.

Maxing out your ‘green’ footprint (which seems kind of hard to maintain) gives you pretty auroras above your lot, while maxing your ‘industrial’ footprint makes your ‘hood look a little smoggy and causes your sims to cough every now and then. And that’s it. Obviously The Sims 4 isn’t really in a position to depict a realistic climate apocalypse (at least not without a huge overhaul), but there’s just not… really any reason to actually pay any mind to these features unless you’re doing it just for the experience of doing it. And it’s not even like all of Evergreen Harbor’s neighborhoods start off industrial and you have to actively work to make them a touch nicer. In fact, only one starts off Industrial, and will eventually move to neutral on its own due to the premade lots present in the neighborhood.

It would be kind of neat had the new world just defaulted to being kind of shitty and making it nice took conscious effort on the part of the player who lives there. But pushing the footprint bar either way is both kind of hard and kind of not worth it. I think this feature would have been much better bundled into a weather expansion, so that we could see our sims’ negative impact on the environment resulting in more extreme weather events, which are increasingly becoming a problem in the real world.

The above doesn’t help the expansion’s themes reconcile with the fact that the importance of a personal carbon footprint is mostly a myth perpetuated by oil companies in order to distract us all from the fact that just 100 companies are responsible for over 70% of emissions, and that pretty much everything we put in a recycling bin ends up in a landfill anyway. I don’t want you to come away feeling like environmentalism is pointless, but the environment has far bigger problems (with a a great many more lobbyists) than Bob, who brings his sedan through a drive through to buy a hamburger and a soda with a plastic straw.

I don’t think it’s bad that this pack seeks to teach its audience a moral, and I think environmentalism is an extremely important lesson to teach, especially to as large an audience of teens as The Sims has. But I just don’t really think Eco Lifestyle properly manages to pull its own moral off. Ignoring the footprint mechanics completely doesn’t result in any negative consequences, the worst that can happen is that your neighborhood gets a bit smoggy, and footprint mechanic itself is plagued with the fact that, even in real life, our personal contributions to the environment pale in comparison to that of a few extremely wealthy corporations.

Honestly, the fact your sims’ small-scale actions can never and will never impact their world’s environment on more than an aesthetic level, due primarily to the actions of a billion dollar corporation, is probably a better lesson than the one EA intended.

So eco footprints are kind of a bust. A bust that’s a little feelgood to play around with, but an ultimately useless bust, nevertheless. But we’re not out of new ways our sims can influence their worlds yet. No, also introduced with Eco Lifestyle is the fact that our sims can now VOTE.

And like any functional democracy, the number of votes your sims get to cast is directly proportional to how many people like them.

“Neighborhood Action Plans” (or N.A.P.s, if you want to make unfortunate typos) are civic policies your sims can vote for, which are then enacted at the end of the voting period, and stay in place until they’re repealed. Sims gain “influence points” by doing various community-minded things, and then spend that influence by either voting, or convincing others to vote, for the NAP they want.

I really like this system, but I also think that it’s heavily underused. Where I feel like the eco footprint system would be better at home bundled in a weather expansion, I feel like the NAP system would be better off as the focus of a civics themed expansion, probably paired with an active politician career or something. As it stands though, I don’t think there’s enough variety in the available NAPs, and I think that the 4 NAP limit is way too high for ‘hoods outside of Evergreen Harbor. Every neighborhood in Evergreen has two aesthetic NAPs that improve the look of the world. Older neighborhoods don’t get these, and therefore have those two extra slots open for more functional policies, and I think that’s just a bit too busy.

Quite a few NAPs only seem to grant you extra influence from doing specific actions, which will obviously become useless once you have the other NAPs you want slotted. I think they may also change sim autonomy, too? Which would be a cool idea if I didn’t obsessively micromanage my households. There are several more interesting ones, such as (of course) environmentally themed ones (power conservation day, fines for water overuse, etc.), and another that makes all your neighbors drunk. I’m very curious as to the story behind the ‘Back to the Old Days’ NAP, which bans technology, drinking, but also woohoo. I’m afraid to ask where Maxis devs believe their grandparents came from.

Like I said, I really want to like this system, and would love to like it more, but the available NAPs just aren’t as interesting as they could be. I got kind of excited when I saw that the greenifying Evergreen Harbor NAP would increase my sims’ bills. It would be interesting for a sims expansion to tackle gentrification, and the possibility of my sims being priced out of their own apartments by policies intended to make the neighborhood prettier. But it doesn’t really have that much of an effect on bills, and most of the interesting NAPs are environmentally themed.

I really hope a modder figures out how to inject custom NAPs into the game because I feel like a lot more could be done with this system that Maxis kind of hamstrung by limiting it to the green theme. Affecting your whole world with new laws and public policy has been a dream of mine since The Sims 3 and I really want this feature to succeed, and be present in future games. There’s just so much that could be done with a sims game where your sims could leave a lasting effect on the game world for future generations.

Overall, I really want to like Eco Lifestyle, but a lot of its core mechanics just feel kind of shallow. I question using these great ideas on a theme that’s just too close to that of a previous expansion, and sets out to push a moral that ends up being kind of misinformed and less than useful. I rate it a “slightly above meh“. It’s not going to be very high on my hypothetical buy order, but I can appreciate parts of it. It has a wealth of honest to god fantastic ideas but unfortunately fails to properly utilize them, leaving me hoping that this kind of gameplay is a sort of prototype for a more complex civics system in the currently-vaporeal Sims 5 (base game or expansion, I don’t mind).

After I move my family out of Evergreen Harbor, I may disable NAPs in my save (you can do that, by the way), but keep the pack installed just for the occasional storytelling possibilities of some of the crazier NAPs and the expansions to Off the Grid play. The changes to bills, new crafts and dumpster sex is fun and all, but the expansion as a whole is not something I would readily spend the MSRP of $40 on again. It’s just not my thing, and neither do I think the core mechanics are implemented particularly spectacularly.

Happy election week, America!